Being forcibly displaced because of violence and conflict is an experience that millions of Colombians have lived through for over four decades. While all Colombian society is permeated by this traumatic reality, displacement is mainly hitting those living in rural areas with devastating impact on the lives of campesino, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. Town and cities are often the final destinations of the displaced in search of safety throughanonymity, facing the grim prospect of being unemployed and becoming dependents on outside assistance. The future is often destitution.
The government of Colombia has progressively responded to the humanitarian and protection needs of the Colombians displaced. It has developed a comprehensive legal framework and has recently shown greater financial commitment to assist them. But too many shortcomings remain, as indicated by several recent pronouncements by the Constitutional Court. The implementation of the single registry, which determines eligibility for state provided services, is still faulty, leading to as many as 40 percent of genuine displaced being unregistered. Even when registered, access to basic services like education and health, decent housing and reliable job opportunities remains problematic. This is particularly true in areas where local authorities are less committed to helping the displaced and show unwelcoming attitudes and rejection.
Colombian civil society groups, like non-governmental organizations and church activists, are also highly involved in providing humanitarian help and psychological comfort, particularly in the first phases of displacement. The work of international groups, such as United Nations agencies and foreign non-governmental organizations, has also been essential. They have enhanced protection for displaced households by virtue of their presence.
The complementary role of civil society and international groups is indisputably important, but the primary responsibility for responding to the needs of the Colombian displaced remains with the Colombian government. Refugees International believes that in order to improve current policies and ultimately better serve the displaced some new steps should be taken. First, the displaced beneficiaries of the projects must be placed at the center of programming. Their leaders must be protected. They must be meaningfully included in policy making and implementation.
But empowerment initiatives for the displaced are not enough. At the same time, existing mechanisms for accountability and sanctions for failure to protect the internally displaced should be reinforced. Despite training and sensitization of public administrators about their constitutionally mandated duty to care for displaced persons, sick displaced people are being turned away from medical facilities; displaced households are not receiving the promised amount of assistance; and returning communities are not receiving services and accompaniment by local authorities as they had committed officially to do. Therefore, the organs of the Public Ministry should be strengthened in order to apply a more aggressive enforcement of accountability procedures, which in turn may lead to sanctions against and ultimately dismissal of those officials who are supposed to provide services.
The accumulation of millions of displaced in urban settlements, where they live in sub-human conditions and are less capable than local resident poor people to restart their lives, requires policies oriented to providing displaced households a dignified living and access to sustainable livelihoods. Some of the current handout and welfare-based programs carried out by the government are not financially sustainable and risk quashing the self-initiative of the displaced. The government of Colombia should redesign programs to focus assistance on housing construction and improvement projects, invest in income generating activities and vocational training courses to provide skills required by the urban labor market, and facilitate access to small credit. These projects should be tailored to respect the age, gender and ethnic origin of the participants, placing priority on households headed by women.
Policies will not have lasting and sustainable impact unless the government of Colombia addresses seriously the issue of land and properties lost by those being forcibly displaced. There remain too many ambiguities about the effectiveness of current mechanisms, including the work of the National Reconciliation and Reparation Commission, to ascertain who took advantage of abandoned lands and properties or purportedly forced original owners out. The government needs to identify proper means to provide effective and satisfactory reparations for the victims.
Finally, considering the magnitude of the challenge to help so many displaced, it is clear that the Colombian government requires the sustained commitment of international donors. Their financial efforts should be increased in order to make IDP leadership and communities play a pivotal role in analyzing their needs, identify adequate solutions and become actively involved in the implementation of assistance programs. Donors must evaluate current interventions in housing, skill training, income generation and other efforts to offer sustainable livelihoods for displaced households and expand and replicate those deemed successful in other areas. Resources are also necessary to help the government expand the capacity of the oversight offices within the Public Ministry.